Ray Preb­ble on the nu­ances of nouns.

North & South - - North & South - By ray preb­ble

ONE DAY in the 1990s, I found my­self, with a group of other peo­ple, watch­ing a splen­did dark-blue shark cruise around the row­ing pond on the Welling­ton water­front. One cu­ri­ous woman (I’ll call her Sally) said, “I won­der what type of shark it is,” and a help­ful by­stander (I’ll call him Ron) said, “It’s a blue shark.” So Sally said, “Yes, but I won­der what type of shark it is,” so Ron said, “It’s a blue shark.” So Sally said…

I kid you not. It was like two ro­bots locked in a logic loop. I had to walk away.

Sally thought she was get­ting a de­scrip­tion but wanted a name and didn’t re­alise that’s what Ron was giv­ing her. Such names are com­mon nouns. They are com­mon inas­much as they ap­ply to a group of things rather than to a par­tic­u­lar per­son, thing or idea. That’s why we tend to write them in lower case: sy­camore, rail­way sta­tion, blue shark. If, through fa­mil­iar­ity and af­fec­tion, we de­cided to give this par­tic­u­lar shark a name, Archie, say, that would be a proper noun, and proper nouns qual­ify for a cap­i­tal let­ter.

Apart from per­sonal names, what other names are proper nouns and qual­ify for the spe­cial priv­i­lege of start­ing with a cap­i­tal let­ter? Therein lies the prob­lem: the idea of priv­i­lege. Peo­ple feel an ir­re­sistible urge to use a cap­i­tal let­ter for an im­por­tant word – or, rather, a word that refers to an im­por­tant thing. This urge is un­der­stand­able, very com­mon, but com­pletely mis­guided.

For ex­am­ple, let’s sup­pose we cap­i­talise oc­cu­pa­tions based on im­por­tance and see where it goes. We de­cide to use “Prime Min­is­ter” and “Vice Chan­cel­lor”, but “plumber” and “dish­washer”. Okay. The tricky bit comes when you have to de­cide how far down the food chain you go be­fore some­one ceases to be im­por­tant. Good luck with that. And you face the same prob­lem with ev­ery noun: does it re­fer to an im­por­tant thing? Says who?

This is­sue is com­mon with Māori words: surely iwi should be Iwi, and te ao Māori should be Te Ao Māori? No and no. Com­mon nouns in both lan­guages should be treated the same way, not least be­cause fail­ing to do so leads to all sorts of food-chain dilem­mas. The Ger­mans solve the prob­lem by cap­i­tal­is­ing ev­ery noun in sight, while the French tend to go in the other di­rec­tion (e.g. École na­tionale supérieure des arts et in­dus­tries tex­tiles).

There are some odd­i­ties. Take geog­ra­phy. I can’t un­der­stand why we shouldn’t call the planet we live on “Earth”, rather than “earth”, not least to dis­tin­guish it from the stuff in the gar­den, but “earth” it is in the Con­cise Ox­ford and else­where. There is (pos­si­bly) more jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for us­ing “south­ern hemi­sphere” on the ba­sis that it is a de­scrip­tion and not a name, al­though di­rec­tional place names are a whole prob­lem class of their own: is it south-east Asia or South­east Asia? A de­scrip­tion or a name? New Zealan­ders write sen­tences like “In the north-east part of the West Coast of the South Is­land” without think­ing, but at least a rule is be­ing fol­lowed: lower case for de­scrib­ing an area, up­per case for nam­ing an area.

Here’s one rule of thumb when things get hazy: the use of a or an is a good sign that you have a com­mon noun: an ac­tion plan, a di­rec­tor, a govern­ment. It’s just one ex­am­ple of a type of thing, not a spe­cific, named in­di­vid­ual, so no cap­i­tal let­ter. The is much less use­ful. It has a point­ing func­tion, dis­tin­guish­ing some­thing in par­tic­u­lar, but that can range from the glass on my desk to the United States. De­scrip­tions in­volv­ing the can also evolve into proper nouns: the Dunedin rail­way sta­tion (a de­scrip­tion) be­comes the Dunedin Rail­way Sta­tion (an of­fi­cial name).

Still puz­zled? If you’re not, you haven’t re­ally grasped the prob­lem. My ad­vice af­ter 30 years’ grap­pling with all this? Use as few cap­i­tals as pos­si­ble. +

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